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Leading environmentalist calls MU to action

Bill McKibben urges students to call UM System President Tim Wolfe’s office to advocate independence from coal by 2015.

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Environmental activist Bill McKibben participated in a video conference via Skype at the Sierra Club's event Wednesday night in Ellis Auditorium. He discussed how it is important to go coal-free and help prevent global warming.

Melissa Fogarty/Staff Photographer

Nov. 2, 2012

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and a leading environmentalist, urged students to take charge of their generation’s planet during a speech Wednesday night.

The anti-coal student organization Coal Free Mizzou put on the event. The crowd of both students and local residents packed Ellis Auditorium to standing room only. McKibben, who lives in Vermont, was unable to travel to MU as planned because of the effects of Hurricane Sandy. He Skyped into the event instead.

“We got that confirmation less than 48 hours ago,” Coal Free Mizzou President Alexandra Rather said to the audience after a brief Skype trial sent chatter and laughter around the room.

Despite the alternative methods, McKibben still came across as passionate and knowledgeable, drawing reactions from the entire auditorium.

McKibben is no underground name in the environmental movement. He wrote “The End of Nature,” regarded by some as the first book for a general audience about global warming. The Boston Globe and Time have described him as “probably the nation’s leading environmentalist” and “the world’s best green journalist.”

McKibben is also the founder and president of 350.org, which focuses on “building a global grassroots movement to solve climate crisis,” according to its website.

“I’m going to begin by getting the depressing stuff out of the way,” McKibben said, garnering laughter from the crowd. “I’m basically a professional bummer-outer.”

McKibben began his 40-minute talk by outlining the astounding speed at which climate change has accelerated since he wrote his book, throwing statistics out into the crowd.

“The atmosphere is 5 percent wetter than it was the year I was born,” McKibben said. “Seawater is 30 percent more acid than 40 years ago. This is causing problems in our oceans — our metaphors for vastness. They’re changing.”

McKibben gave the audience a sense of urgency when he put the recent changes in perspective.

“Everything I’ve described so far tonight happens when we increase the global temperature by 1 degree,” McKibben said. “Nothing will be able to prosper if it rises 3 or 4 degrees.”

The speech took a brighter turn after this ultimatum when McKibben began to speak to how the audience members could initiate change.

“Our failure is not technological,” he said, referring to the scarcity of political support. “Our failure is a lack of effort.”

McKibben said he recognized the college presence within the audience.

“You young people have 60 or so years left on this planet,” McKibben said. “It behooves you to make sure they don’t completely suck.”

He then seemed to surprise the audience by picking up his house phone and calling UM System President Tim Wolfe’s office.

“I’m hopeful that President Wolfe will decide to end dependence of coal by 2015,” McKibben said to Wolfe’s secretary. “You can pass that along.”

McKibben hung up and was greeted with applause from the audience, who was then urged to do the same. Coal Free Mizzou leaders even handed out scripts with Wolfe’s number on them.

“That was the best part,” MU professor Michael Ugarte said after the presentation. “He should have called him at home.”

The presentation concluded with a Q&A session before McKibben had to sign off for another interview.

The crowd’s age gaps became once again apparent as the audience shuffled out of the auditorium after the presentation.

“It’s great for young people to be exposed to new points of view,” former MU professor Bob Swope said of the college students in attendance. “(McKibben’s) a living legend – a leader of a movement in need of support.”

MU Peace Studies Program Director Clarence Lo said Hurricane Sandy and McKibben’s inability to travel to Columbia proved his own point.

“Climate change is accelerating,” Lo said. “Events that seem like outliers become everyday events.”

McKibben said he denies allegations of being a radical.

“We just want to live on a planet like the one we were born onto,” McKibben said. “It’s time for us to do something about it.”

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